Gainesville's subtle landscape offers more than stereotypical Florida scenery. Visitors to Gainesville will see palm trees, yes, but also massive live-oak trees draped with hanging moss. The city's tree canopy creates a comforting and inclusive atmosphere for visitors, making Gainesville less a city with a view than a city in a forest.
Visitor attractions such as freshwater springs, pristine rivers and Paynes Prairie—a 21,000-acre/8,500-hectare nature preserve that supports a range of wildlife, including bison—are within a 30-minute drive of Gainesville's center.
On the weekends, visitors to Gainesville will see cars with kayaks and bicycles strapped on. Gainesville has 80 mi/130 km of bike lanes and trails—more than any other Florida city—and has received a silver award from the League of American Bicyclists for being such a bicycle-friendly place.
There's both a pleasant, small-town feel in Gainesville and lively nightlife centered on the University of Florida and its more than 50,000 students. A progressive, eclectic gem, Gainesville draws artists and intellectuals, scientists and musicians, healers and entrepreneurs. And it offers a refuge for visitors fleeing southern Florida's more developed strip-mall-and-subdivision regions.
Restaurants, galleries and bars dot Gainesville's downtown, which abuts historic residential districts. It has its growing pains—traffic can be formidable—but, overall, smart urban planning and streetscapes make for an attractive, if sprawling, travel destination.
Note: Florida sustained widespread damage during Hurricane Irma in September 2017. Travelers should investigate current conditions prior to planning a visit.
Gainesville's sprawling landscape leaves few compact areas and almost no natural landmarks to help you navigate. The streets form a grid system divided into quadrants (northeast, northwest, southeast, southwest), with the starting point at University Avenue and Main Street—the old center of town. Streets, terraces and drives run north to south; avenues, places, lanes and roads run east to west.
Major east-west arteries include Archer Road and University Avenue. Chain restaurants and shopping centers line Archer Road west of Southwest 34th Street to Interstate 75. University Avenue leads to the University of Florida at Southwest 13th Street and to downtown Gainesville at Main Street. The downtown area boasts a high concentration of great restaurants. Plaza Royale and the Oaks Mall are located along Newberry Road, west of 34th Street. (University Avenue eventually turns into Newberry Road as you travel west.)
There are several small neighboring towns just outside Gainesville, including Ocala (best known for its horse farms), Cross Creek, Alachua, Newberry and High Springs.
Gainesville emerged as an agricultural center. Before it was settled, the town and its surrounding areas—especially Paynes Prairie—were home to the Timucuan tribe. William Bartram, now known as America's first naturalist, trekked to the area in 1774 and later wrote about its plants and environment. The Spanish ran the largest cattle-herding operation in the state on Paynes Prairie in the early 1800s. The prairie eventually turned into a lake that supported steamboat travel.
The town was officially founded in 1853. The railroad linking Fernandina on the east coast of Florida and Cedar Key on the west coast was refashioned to bypass Newnansville, the county seat at the time. Farmers shipped their goods via train to coastal and northern markets. A determined group of residents banded together to charter a new town along the railroad line, which they named for Gen. Edmund Gaines, victorious commander in the Second Seminole War (1835-42).
The University of Florida opened in 1906, gradually changing its focus from agriculture to education. Today, the university is the main employer in Alachua County.
Gainesville offers a wealth of cultural and natural sightseeing opportunities. You can visit the Harn Museum of Art and the Florida Museum of Natural History, with its Butterfly Museum, which features a 65-ft-/20-m-tall open-air vivarium with about 2,000 butterflies. You also can head to Lake Alice to see the Baughman Center Chapel, one of Gainesville's most beautiful structures.
Just north of downtown is the Duckpond neighborhood, part of the Northeast Historic District. Start at the Thomas Center, with its gallery and period rooms, and then take a walking tour of the fine Victorian and colonial revival homes. You can walk downtown from the Thomas Center. If you visit on a Wednesday afternoon, be sure to stop in at the farmers market set up at the Downtown Community Plaza.
Gainesville offers plenty of bars downtown and near the university that host visiting bands. Visit http://www.gainesvillebands.com for the latest info on the Gainesville music scene.
In the summer months, spread a blanket at the Gainesville Community Plaza 8-10 pm on Friday and catch music and movies for free. It's called "Let's Go Downtown" at the Downtown Community Plaza.
For its size, Gainesville offers some great restaurants. Some of the best are small and inexpensive, and chefs increasingly are buying fresh, seasonal produce from the area's organic growers. Although chain restaurants line Archer Road, downtown Gainesville boasts the city's highest concentration of upscale, independent restaurants. We suggest heading to one of those local establishments for a taste of Florida's best.
Expect to pay within these general guidelines for a dinner for one, not including drinks, tax or tip: $ = less than US$15; $$ = US$15-$25; $$$ = US$26-$40; and $$$$ = more than US$40.
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